- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has ordered a review of whether weapons-buying authority should be stripped away from U.S. Special Operations Command, an increasingly important player in the military's war against al Qaeda.

Administration officials say Mr. Rumsfeld's written directive has touched off an internal battle between his budget staff, who want the change, and special operations forces, which oppose the loss of autonomy.

The argument for the change is that it would free up Special Operations Command (SoCom), headquartered in Tampa, Fla., to focus solely on its war-fighting role of supporting global clandestine missions to capture or kill al Qaeda terrorists.

But opponents counter that the command's ability to buy specialized weapons is the key reason the underfunded special operations force of the failed 1980 Desert One mission became the crack outfit that helped win the war in Afghanistan.

"The command knows specifically what they need and set their own priorities," said a senior administration official who opposes any change. "The problem is not in the procurement process, it's in the leadership of SoCom."

The official added, "If you take it away from SoCom it would be like taking aircraft procurement from the Air Force or submarine procurement from the Navy."

A Pentagon spokesman yesterday declined to discuss specific budget issues as the Pentagon puts together the fiscal 2004 budget for submission to the White House later this year.

The command today oversees a $5 billion annual budget code named Major Force Package 11. About $3 billion of that is an acquisition account that buys helicopters, weapons, radios and other gear for some 47,000 special operations personnel. Special operations, with some of the nation's most elite warriors, includes Army Green Berets and Delta Force, and Navy SEALs.

The Pentagon's other major combatant commands, such as U.S. Central Command and Pacific Command, rely on the four military services to buy equipment for forces in their region. U.S. Special Operations alone has the authority to equip its personnel, a leeway granted by Congress 15 years ago to ensure these specialized warriors get the unique gear they need, without a long bureaucratic process.

Mr. Rumsfeld recently sent a memo to military and civilian leaders asking why the command should not use the same process as other combatant commands. Mr. Rumsfeld often provokes debates and policy changes by issuing such white-paper memos, dubbed "snowflakes" by Pentagon officials because of the frequency with which they descend on policy-makers.

Officials said the Joint Staff, the planning arm of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, originally endorsed the idea, but now has backed off in the face of opposition from the commando community.

Ironically, say opponents, the proposal to weaken the command's authority comes as Mr. Rumsfeld is looking to it to take on a larger role in the war against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and other Islamic terrorist groups.

Special operations is a major player in the war. In Afghanistan, for example, Army Green Berets turned the tide of battle last fall. Since then, commando units have been continually hunting down Taliban and al Qaeda members.

In June, Mr. Rumsfeld sent a classified order to Gen. Charles Holland, who heads Special Operations Command, to develop a new clandestine war plan for capturing and killing terrorists. That evolving plan is expected to give the command authority to actually execute missions, not just support them.

The argument for stripping budget authority is that "SoCom is so busy on the resource management side it can't go out and fight the war," said one administration official.

A military official said Congress created SoCom, and its budget authority, in 1987 because the commando units could not compete for dollars against the demands of four military branches. The result: an underfunded, dispirited special operations cadre that exposed its equipment shortfalls in the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.

"The crown jewel is the fact we have our own [procurement] money," said the official.

Giving one example, the official said SoCom was able to quickly develop and field a new hand-held radio, the multiband inter/intra team radio (MBITR). Without budget leeway, it is "highly unlikely" the 6,600 radios could have been developed and purchased as fast, the official said.

During the Afghan war, troops discovered they needed ground transportation. SoCom quickly purchased hundreds of light trucks.

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